NEW YORK — Typically a road game against a nine-win team isn’t a particularly sought-after ticket. But Wednesday night as the Washington Wizards faced the slumping Brooklyn Nets, team owner Ted Leonsis occupied a courtside seat, and several members of the Wizards’ front office staff, including President Ernie Grunfeld, either came off the road or traveled in from Washington to catch the game. They came to support center Ian Mahinmi, who made his long-awaited return to the lineup after missing 50 of the team’s previous 51 games due to knee problems.
“I’m more than excited for Ian,” teammate Bradley Beal said. “It’s great to see him back out there.”
On Thursday, the Wizards did not practice but Mahinmi received light treatment, according to a team official. He will be available Friday night when Washington hosts his former team, the Indiana Pacers.
Throughout his months of recovery, the Wizards and their medical staff have carefully handled Mahinmi. In October, he underwent surgery on his left knee. Then in late December he flew to Florida to have platelet-rich plasma injections on both knees. Finally, on Wednesday, the Wizards got a preview of the player they committed four years and $64 million to in free agency, and Mahinmi played 12 minutes, finishing with two points, five rebounds and three fouls in Washington’s 114-110 victory at Brooklyn.
“I just want to fit in, get a feel for it. Be myself and keep it simple,” Mahinmi said before Wednesday’s game. “It’s always the hard thing coming back from injury, especially when it’s your first year with the team and getting familiar with players you haven’t played before with. So first thing is keep it simple and be there for your teammates, help each other. Try to impact the game by any means and get a feel for it.”
Though Mahinmi preaches simplicity, working him into the rotation could be more of a challenge.
At this point in the season, teams rarely hold meaningful practices. Also, the Wizards have developed the habit of canceling morning shoot-arounds before games, so although Mahinmi has watched the team develop from his courtside view, he will have limited opportunities to develop on-court chemistry outside of games. Beal, acutely aware of how injuries can make a player feel isolated, understands that teammates will play a big role in Mahinmi’s integration.
“We know it’s tough coming in and everybody wants you to play. Everybody expects you to be with the team right away but injuries happen. Heck, I’m the biggest guy who knows about that, so it’s great he’s back with us now,” Beal said. “We instill confidence in him, we trust him, we believe in him. We’ve seen him work out. We’ve seen him put the time in rehab in and get the job done. We believe in whoever’s out there on the floor is going to help us impact the game. We’re going to make him feel as comfortable as possible and help him with the plays and just get a good flow.”
Unlike his last recovery, which led to a failed comeback in November, Mahinmi was patient this time around. Following the PRP injections, the team held him out of practice for the six-week time frame, and even when Mahinmi returned to basketball-related activities, he remained mindful not to overdo it.
“This time was a little bit different than the first time. I didn’t want any setbacks,” Mahinmi said. “I really went through the process. I was patient. Let’s put it this way: I was a good listener. I didn’t try something crazy. I didn’t take any risks. It’s still early right now so there’s some stuff I’m just going to experience in the game.”
The 6-foot-11 Mahinmi has dunked in practices and workouts with coaches but knew he wouldn’t be able to replicate certain in-game situations like defensive rotations and reactions until the time came.
“It’s always easier to play one-on-one against someone that you know,” Mahinmi said. “Having to react quick and do things in sync, that’s the challenge. When you practice, everything’s in a controlled environment, you know what you’re going to do before you do it.”
Against the Nets, Mahinmi displayed aggressiveness but also caught the attention of officials. Only 19 seconds after Mahinmi walked to the scorer’s table and slapped hands with a jubilant Navin Hettiarachchi — who, as Washington’s director of athletic performance/strength and conditioning, has gotten to know Mahinmi well over the past several months — he committed his first reaching foul. Then in the closing seconds of the first quarter, Mahinmi slightly bumped Trevor Booker while in the act of shooting. By the time he picked up his third foul in only five minutes of play, Coach Scott Brooks gave Mahinmi a rest.
After the game, Brooks echoed Mahinmi in that the full return will happen with simple goals.
“It’s going to take him maybe even a month to get in a good playing rhythm,” Brooks said. “We’re going to keep working with him and keep integrating him with our team, playing with starters, playing with the second unit.”